Study Reveals What Kinds of Instagram Photos Drive Sales

Yellow and blue images drive more sales than other colors. Who knew?
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Dhani Mau
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Yellow and blue images drive more sales than other colors. Who knew?
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Brands and marketers have long been trying to figure out how to use Instagram to do more than share aesthetically pleasing images, like driving online store traffic or sales -- both challenging things to accomplish when it's impossible to add clickable links into an Instagram caption.

A new study offers the first real data on an Instagram's ability to drive sales and, perhaps more importantly, the photo elements that boost sales conversions. The University of Wisconsin approached Olapic, a platform that allows retailers to host a curated feed of Instagram images on their websites, to partner on the study. (Olapic is trying to persuade retailers to use its service on its product pages to improve conversions -- some retailers say it has -- which is why Olapic gave University of Wisconsin access to to all of its data.)

The study identified five elements that increase an Instagram photo's power to inspire an eventual purchase. They are, in no particular order:

• High levels of yellow or blue.

• Longer captions.

• No question marks or exclamations.

• No filters.

• From infrequent posters with high follower counts.

At first glance, I was a little suspicious and confused, as perhaps you are now. As I mentioned, you can't put links in Instagram captions, so there is no way to measure traffic and sales conversions from Instagram using existing web analytics tools. How could someone even track this?

Purush Papatla, professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin, says he and his research team studied people who looked at user-generated Instagram photos hosted on a brand's page (via Olapic), and then tracked whether that person eventually purchased something from that brand, checking to see if the item purchased was in an image s/he had previously viewed. The elements listed above were frequently featured in photos that ultimately inspired a purchase over a six-month period.

What does this mean for brands? Interestingly, Papatla and Olapic co-founder Pau Sabria found that the elements that tended to trigger engagement (likes, comments) were not the same elements that triggered sales conversions. Furthermore, their findings did not align with existing data about how colors are supposed to effect people. There's been "a lot of research on the effect of color on people," explained Papatla: For example, that red excites people more. However, the Olapic study showed that red had no effect on sales.

This makes things more complicated for brands, Sabria said. "When trying to define a visual strategy [brands] will have to try to pursue [engagement and sales conversion separately]" and "use a mix of criteria when curating Instagram photos."

Sabria predicts that in the future, as e-commerce becomes increasingly visual, we will see more user-generated photos in e-commerce and, ultimately, more personalized e-commerce experiences.